For Olympics in Vancouver, ice isn’t so easy

 VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Ice appears such a simple concoction — water turned really cold. This time of year, its favored role is usually the one it plays at the bottom of a glass.
       But ice is a year-round, lifelong science for the people hired by the Vancouver Organizing Committee to produce complex forms of it for the Winter Olympics, coming in February.
       Beyond the usual challenges in constructing ice surfaces to meet the needs of different sports in different arenas, Vancouver’s location presents a twist, with its combination of sea-level elevation and high humidity, unique among Winter Olympic host cities.
       Toss in the usual broadcast demands accompanying the Olympics — extra banks of hot lights and inflexible event schedules among them — and the so-called icemeisters might want to make some extra cubes for a stiff drink.
       Already, six months before the Olympics begin, they oversee a busy calendar of events and training sessions to test the limits of the refrigeration systems, and gauge the effects of spectators in the building and athletes on the ice. They experiment with water filtration and air circulation and train teams of workers in the art of resurfacing.
       About half of the Olympics will take place on carefully crafted thin ice. Varying by arena, it must be a specific temperature, texture, composition, even color (thank you, television), whether spread across a vast surface inside an arena or down the side of a mountain. It must hold its consistency for weeks despite the collaborative efforts of ice’s enemies, from the obvious (the sun, sharp objects and thundering 635-kilogram bobsleds) to the not-so-obvious (open arena doors, spectators and spinning 40-kilogram figure skaters).
        “You can’t just go out there and make ice,” said Hans Wuthrich, in charge of the surface at the newly built curling arena, where the final step is a delicate spritz of scientifically configured water droplets strong enough to alter the course of 20 kilograms of sliding granite.
       The five ice specialists, each with deep Canadian ties, have extensive experience from previous Olympics. On behalf of ice, they helped design new locales and the upgrades to existing ones. They toured Vancouver’s water-treatment plants to study their product’s key ingredient. They ponder every ice-dooming possibility.
       Consider the challenge facing Tracy Seitz, making ice for competitors in bobsled, luge and skeleton at the Whistler Sliding Centre.
       The serpentine track, nearly a mile long, starts at an elevation of 939 meters and drops to 787 meters. In February, it sometimes snows at the top and rains at the bottom. Occasionally, the opposite occurs.
       The track’s straight parts are U-shaped. High-banked curves are C-shaped, arcing up about 5 meters to a gravity-defying overhang to accommodate speeds of more than 153 kilometers an hour.
       Parts of the track angle toward the midday sun. Parts are always in shadow. Some competitions will be at night.
       In mid-September, with the track chilled by refrigeration running through pipes in the concrete, Seitz and his crew will spray water from hoses until there is a thin layer of ice thick enough to absorb abuse from sliders experiencing more than 5 Gs of force around a corner. It is thin enough to let the refrigeration system below the ice combat threats above it.
       The trick is to keep the ice, no matter the forces working against it, between -4.4 degrees Celsius and minus 3.9 degrees. Warmer, and the outer layers can turn slushy. Colder, and the brittle ice can crack in sheets. Inconsistencies can be dangerous, even fatal.
       “We want to make sure the ice doesn’t change considerably in the heat of a race,” Seitz said.
       Competitions can take several hours, he noted. But medals are often determined by hundredths of a second.
       Even indoors, most ice begins the same way — atop concrete disguising a maze of refrigeration pipes. Water is added in thin layers because that makes stronger ice than filling a rink with an inch of water as if it were a giant ice-cube tray.
       “The water in Vancouver is incredible,” said Mark Messer, the icemeister for the Richmond Olympic Oval, where speed skating will take place. “It’s very, very clean.”
       Messer, whose full-time job is plant manager and ice specialist at the Olympic oval in Calgary, Alberta, billed as “the fastest ice in the world,” experimented “to give us a combination of a lot of glide in the ice and still have a lot of grip so the ice doesn’t break when you make it cold.”
Sensors are placed in the ice before final layers are added. Other sensors measure air temperature and humidity throughout the building. They warn of the slightest changes. Similar controls will be in place at the two hockey arenas, overseen by Dan Craig, facilities operations manager for the National Hockey League.
       For Vancouver, the biggest concern is humidity, which averages about 80 percent during February. The goal is to keep it below 50 percent inside each arena, and below 40 percent in most, even if it is pouring rain outside. When humid air hits ice, frost is created.
        “As soon as you have frost, you can’t get that out of your ice,” the icemeister Kameron Kiland said, as if describing red wine on white carpet.
       Vancouver’s indoor arenas are packed with extra dehumidifiers, more than at other Olympics. Spectators will enter through large, tented buffer zones between the outside elements and the surface of the ice.
       “The big thing for us is the load-in of the spectators,” said Kiland, overseeing ice for Pacific Coliseum, where both figure skaters (who want soft ice) and short-track speed skaters (who want hard ice) will alternately compete. “If you’ve got a coliseum with upwards of 13,000 fans loading in for an event and they’re all wearing fleeces, catching moisture and bringing it in, you’ve got to dry that off and catch it before they bring it into the bowl.”
   The last thing the damp fans will be thinking about is the ice, in all its complex transparency.